Saturday, October 25, 2014

Tussey Mountainback 50 Mile, State College, PA. 10/19/14

It was 6:30 am.  It was in the mid-30.  And it was raining. I refused to accept this. As I sat there watching the light rain collect on my windshield, I pulled out my iPad to re-check the weather. According to, I was assured it was absolutely NOT raining outside my car.  I contemplated how to best handle starting a 50 mile race in the rain when not using a drop bag, (so I had no chance of changing into dry clothes). Then Mother Nature decided to stop playing around.  At 6:45 am, the rain stopped. It was damp and chilly, but it was dry and ultimately a perfect day!

Too Close to Steamtown. Tussey Mountainback was a last minute decision for me. Steamtown Marathon, last weekend was my goal race for the Fall. When I run a fast marathon, I can feel it in my legs the following weekend. I wasn’t sure it was a smart decision to go out to State College, PA knowing I would not be 100%.  However about a month ago, I finally decided to commit to Tussey and just planned to run my best.  

Why this race should be on everyone’s To Do list:  If you can’t run 50 miles on your own in 12 hours, then get a relay team together and experience this course.  It is the friendliest 50 miler I have ever done.  

First, it is really a great beginner 50, because the footing is primarily dirt or gravel roads eliminating the concern about twisting ankles or falling down in the middle of the woods.  Yet the course is almost entirely inside the shaded wood.  It is really the best of road and trail racing combined. 

Second, the Aid is plentiful. Because the Relay is divided into 12 legs, each leg is book-ended with fully stocked Aid Stations.  It is absolutely possible to run this race without carrying anything, except a small bottle.  I carried a 10 oz bottle and 4 gels and used the available aid so that all my needs were met. If you are concerned about racing one full 50 mile loop, you can use drop bags on the course.

Third, the course is well marked with Mile Markers the entire way and signs telling you when you are 1/2 mile from the aid station.  There are Blue Arrows on the course and flour on the ground to keep runners on track.  This was clearly not enough to keep me on track but it was largely bad timing and distracted attention that caused me to miss a turn. 

Photo that truly depicts the beauty of this course, but I did not take it. I found this photo here:

Fourth, the course is not easy, but it is not truly hard either. We journey up and down very hilly wooded terrain in the beautiful autumn. At times I caught myself exclaiming out loud, “Oh Wow, This is so beautiful!”  When faced with a very difficult uphill leg, there is always consolation in knowing that a long invigorating downhill leg will follow.  The last leg returns to pavement and can be quite fast. You will likely not run as fast in the last 4 miles of a 50 miler anywhere else.    

Finally, because the relay starts after the ultrarunners, the spectator support ultra runners get is more than I have experienced at any other 50 miler.  As the relayers and their car support crews catch up and pass the ultrarunners, almost every team calls out “Go Ultra!” to all of us wearing Orange Bibs.  One con is that it can be a bit unnerving at times when the drivers of those cars try to pass runners too quickly as sometimes gravel does shoot up from the tires.  I never got hit by any, but I was often worried I could be.  So if you find yourself driving this course, please make an effort to pass runners as slowly as possible. 

This elevation chart is awesome. Do not let it intimidate you. It is not as bad as it looks when all squished together like this.  As long as you understand you will be running a hilly course, you will be just fine. 

Important Tip: Memorize The Uphill Legs. I committed the uphill leg numbers to memory (1,4,6,9,11) so I would know when the suffering would end. I knew 6 and 11 would be the worst. This course is either Up or Down, nothing flat. If you pay close attention, those number tell a great story about why this course is so much fun.  Out of 12 legs, 5 are uphill, and 7 are down. In addition, 3 of the uphill legs are completed by the half way point, meaning the second half has more descent that the first half.  This is really great for morale!

Start: 7:00am.

Leg #1 - 3.2 Miles, Uphill. 

The race starts in the dark. I was able to meet Anne and Bob just after the rain stopped and right before the start.  Anne and I ran a few minutes side-by-side.  I must have bumped into her 3 times. A few people had flashlights or headlamps, but it really isn’t needed. There was a little uneven pavement at the start and care should be taken in the dark. But, if I had no trouble remaining upright, most people will be good.  By 7:15 am the sun was rising and no lamps were needed.  Just before we reach M1, the climbing has already begun. I didn’t feel compelled to walk, but I am sure some others may have decided to as we all made our way to the first transition point/aid station

Leg#2 - 4.0 Miles - Easy, Downhill 
The support at the Aid Station is so positive and welcomed. It helps to pull you up the hill when people at the top are already asking you what you need.  I never linger too long at Aid. In fact, I try to rarely stop moving for more than a few seconds whenever possible.  I grab nothing at this stop because it was early.  Just when starting to worry that my legs are too tired for this, we start the 4 miles of descent. It is such a blessing to run effortlessly for over 30 minutes.  
M4 - 8:49
M5 - 8:28
M6 - 8:20
M7 - 8:06

Leg #3 - 3.8 Miles - Mostly Flat or Declining
This leg would be the flattest of the race and still contained a little downhill. Once into Whipple Park we would start the uphill.  My biggest concern was that my fingers were still very very cold.  I felt like the air was getting colder.  I needed to blow into my hands, that were wrapped in my long sleeve tech shirt to try to warm up my fingers.   It was also at this point that I realized that I had either leaned up a little since last fall (when I last raced in capri pants) or the lyrca had simply given up on me.  I spent the rest of the race constantly pulling up my pants!  LOL  It would probably help for me to remember to wear pant with the drawstring still in place next time! 
M8 - 8:47
M9 - 8:43
M10 - 8:47
M11 - 8:55

Let #4 - 5.6 Miles - Long Uphills Start during this leg.
In addition to taking a small cup of Coke which I try to do whenever offered, I grabbed a chunk of banana from the Aid Station. I took a Gel and a little packet of iodized salt to help me prepare.  I met Casey on this leg and asked him to join me.  I could see he was settling down in his pace.  I asked him if he knew the course, because I felt it was too soon to slow down unless you needed to, especially if you knew leg 4 had a more significant incline to come where walk breaks were likely best utilized.  We joined forces and traveled almost two legs together. 
M12 - 8:13
M13 - 8:27
M14 - 9:07
M15 -11:51 The Steepest Part of this leg.
M16 - 9:02

Leg #5 -3.4 Miles- Refreshing Descent 

I really felt that Leg 4's climbing was significant. I started to wonder if the course was different and somehow the longest steepest leg had come early. I questioned my course knowledge only because I had heard from Anne that the RD mentioned rerouting part of the course due to two bridges being out.  I asked a woman at the Aid Station if this leg had the worst of the climbing or was leg 6 the leg with the very long uphill?  She confirmed that leg 6 was worse than 4.  I grabbed some Coke, a few potato chips, filled my bottle with water and was on my way.  The descent of this leg was again refreshing and helping me to mentally prepare for what would be a tough section.
M17 - 9:57
M18 - 8:06
M19 - 8:42 (I took another Gel and some more iodized salt here)
M20 - 8:23
Leg #6 - 4.1 Miles of The LONGEST INCLINE (About 8% incline for almost the entire way) 
I knew this section would be slow.  It was all uphill for miles.  There is real no breaks. Just uphill.  I could feel my hip flexor getting very irritated whenever I attempted to run uphill.  The tightness was moving into my groin. I was still tired from Steamtown and not 100% ready to run hard.  I made a decision to hike this leg as fast as I could and anywhere I could run without feeling like I was doing damage  I ran.  I had 0% pain when hiking so I felt confident that if I took care of my body I could have a great run, despite planning to walk any hills that were so steep they caused irritation.
M21 - 12:32
M22 - 13:42
M23 - 16:16
M24 - 9:44 Flurries at highest point in the race!

Leg #7 - 3.7 Miles Downhill
I was thrilled to see the faintest evidence of snow flurries at the top of the course. I am not a fan of snow, but it is hard to not feel uplifted when flurries start! Mile 24 is the high point of the race so it makes sense to see the flurries here.  I asked a few others around me if they noticed them too. A few were paying close enough attention and as thrilled as me.  One man said, "I see them too. You are not Hallucinating" which made me laugh since this can be a real problem for ultra runners in longer ultras.  I was so very happy to reach the halfway point, feeling amazing considering I had been running 4 hours.  I felt that I could actually have a shot at negative splitting this race if I could get through the last two hilly legs well.  But I also knew that leg 11 has the steepest climb, but it is short. 
M25 - 8:26 (4:02 at half way)
M26 - 7:58 (4:12 Marathon Split)
M27 - 9:27
M28 - 8:48

Leg#8 - 4.3 Miles more of Descent!
The reward for climbing leg 6 is two full descending legs.  It is such a wonderful feeling to have gravity on your side so late in the race.  I was once again humming and whistling to myself.  I reminded myself to take my third gel at this point and to enjoy the fast pace. 
M29 - 8:41
M30 - 8:43
M31 - 8:39 (4:56 50k split)
M32 - 7:51
M33 - 9:52

Leg#9 - 2.9 Miles  Short Ascent
At this point I was resigned to walking anything up. I did so guilt free and knowing that it was the best decision I could make.  Each time I walked, runners would pull ahead.  But I was so fresh by the top of each ascent that I made up ground on the downhill, often passing and not seeing those runners again, until I messed up.  
M34 - 13:36
M35 - 11:41
M36 - 12:14 

Leg#10 -5.5 Miles Downhill, but first a detour.

Leg 10 was supposed to a downhill leg.  I grabbed a cup of small diced potatoes from the aid station and tried to reorganized myself. I noticed a blue arrow and I was moving in that direction so I focused my attention on my race vest.  I wanted to eat, drink, and take some more salt before I started running hard again.  As I moved along, I reached  an intersection, that was not marked.  This was odd. To have several options and no markings is a bad sign. I looked back for markers and did not see any.  There was a road going uphill that I passed. I could have taken it uphill, but I knew this leg was downhill and I did not notice a marker when I looked that way.  And to be honest, I really did not want to have to go up again.  I recalled the last marker I saw pointing straight ahead.  I convinced myself that if I was suppose to turn there would be an arrow telling me to turn.  It was downhill.  It also passed a campground which I distinctly remembered from last year.  Yet, I still did not feel confident that I was going the right way.  I saw no one ahead of me but we were spaced out far at that point.  I looked back and saw someone behind me.  He was not frantically yelling for me to come back, so that was a good sign.  I was only off course for a few minutes when I finally saw the Bridge Out sign.  Oh No!

I turned back and met the guy, Brendan, behind me.  I told him we had gone the wrong way.  Then I spewed out a string of profanities. I asked if he saw any markers.  He reported that he had not noticed any that said he should have turned or he would have, but he also said he was simply following me.  Ugh.  So we hiked back up the hill back towards the last aid station, which was only .5 miles away.  This was not a devastating mis-step, but it took the wind out of my sails.  

I noticed some flour in the road that the cars had driven over and dispersed. I am certain that was once an arrow demarcating the almost 180 degree turn we needed to take in order to head UP the hill that I did not want to run when I had looked back minutes before.  As I got closer, there was, in fact, an arrow on a tree.  However from my angle earlier when I looked back, it was blocked by branches.   

Had I just kept my head up when dealing with my vest and my potatoes, and my drink, and my gel, and my salt after that aid station, I would have likely seen the blue arrow… but I missed it and added a mile to my journey, as well as Brendan's. 

Once back on track, I notice a woman close behind. Come On! I did not want to lose a position because I was not paying attention. I asked Brendan to hurry up with me.  We cruised the descent together at a strong pace while I cursed myself and apologized to him simultaneously.  He was nice and really managed to get me to refocus.  He shared that this was his first 50 miler.  I was really impressed with him.  I focused my energy on trying to help him stay positive rather than have him listen to me rant.  I could see that he was struggling a little more than he wanted to let on, as I caught him wince a little or ask me when the next uphill section would be, since I promised him we could walk there. He stayed with me to the next Aid Station and decided to let me go on while he slowed just a bit.  It was not much as he finished only few minutes behind me.

M37 - 14:16 * bonus mile
M38 - 8:02 (noticing woman behind me)
M39 - 8:10 
M40 - 8:27
M41 - 8:51
M42 - 9:22

Leg#11- 5.3 Miles Uphill with the Steepest climb of the race.
Even after an entire downhill leg which I thought I ran quite well, this woman was still behind me. She was very strong!  At the same time I felt both (1) that we were almost done and I could hold her off as well as (2) that we had along way to go and I might get caught.  I knew I could not let up on the inclines now if I wanted to hold my position.  Even with hip irritation, I worked the uphills to the best of my ability.  I tried to make sure that whenever I was in her line of sight I was running even if the course was uphill. I admit I must have looked back a million times, to try to gauge what was happening.  I could see that I was putting distance on her on the climb and that helped me feel more confident.  I needed to get to the Steepest point of the course out of her range since I knew I would need to walk that very steep ascent.  If I could finish this leg ahead of her, I was sure I could run a fast enough pace in the last 4 miles to hold whatever position I was in.   
M43 - 10:00
M44 - 10:49
M45 - 10:29
M46 - 13:46 Steepest point (About an 11% grade for .5 miles)

Leg#12- 4.2 Miles Downhill to the Finish
This entire race I was focused on just getting to this aid station. I convinced myself that since the last 4.2 miles were downhill, those last 4 would feel great.  Well, even downhill miles can be exhausting on tired legs. I saw Bob at the Aid Station and blabbered something at him about how I made a wrong turn, as it was still bothering me.  One extra mile felt so long at this point.  I grabbed more Coke and took off.  The last 2 miles are truly the fastest part of this leg, but first we need to go back uphill a bit to crest the last little peak before starting to wind our way down.  I was so glad to be finishing this race.  I knew I was going to run a faster time than last year, too, despite the Bonus mile.  
M47 - 10:02
M48 - 9:27
M49 - 8:49
M50 - 9:04
M51 - 8:03 (kicking it in to the finish!) 

Unofficial Distance: 51.98
Time: 8:18:50
OA Place 13th
Gender 5th

Final Thoughts - Shoes:  I opted to wear the Brook ST5 Racers and I am 100% satisfied that I made a great choice.  My feet did not hurt at all by the end of the race.  I had no blisters. I had no hot spots.  I am convinced that the stability posting and the 12mm drop in these shoes are just what I need to keep my recurring Plantar Fascitis in check.  I believe I supinate when I run, but I have a feeling that over the long haul all bets are off.  In the past I had always felt it made little sense for me to use a stability shoe when I am not an overpronator.  Yet,  so far the ST5's have proven me wrong.  Just a note about sponsorship - I am no longer accepting the Brooks ID Sponsorship and no longer contractually obligated to wear only Brooks. I turned down the Coach's Sponsorship offer so that Brooks could offer it to the Track and Field ad XC Coaches they were targeting, and so I could have the freedom back in my life to try other products without violating a contract.  Therefore, I share this information about these shoes for no other reason than to share my pure joy at finding a shoe that feel fantastic from start to finish, even when the finish is over 8 hours later! 


  1. Wow Shannon! You are a fantastic writer. I was right there with you the whole way, even when you missed the turn. I know I will never be able to do anything remotely close to that distance, but I will always get the thrill of doing it virtually if you keep on pouring it out like only you can do! Thank you Shannon.

    1. Oh Jim. Thank you! Some day I just hope to do what you as a streaker! :)